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‘It was a chaotic situation’: Canadian stuck in Turkey recounts earthquake

Zein Almoghraby ran outside his hotel room in southeast Turkey when the building began shaking early Monday morning.
A woman sits on the rubble as emergency rescue teams search for people under the remains of destroyed buildings in Nurdagi town on the outskirts of Osmaniye city southern Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. Ottawa says Canada will contribute $10 million to earthquake relief efforts in Turkey and Syria as part of an initial aid package. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Khalil Hamra

Zein Almoghraby ran outside his hotel room in southeast Turkey when the building began shaking early Monday morning.

Once he stepped into the hallway, the Toronto resident saw people running frantically down the stairs.

“Children were just crying and yelling… It was a chaotic situation,” he said in a phone interview from Gaziantep, one of the cities hit hardest by the deadly earthquake that ravaged parts of Turkey and Syria.

The 7.8 magnitude quake, which was followed by strong aftershocks, has levelled thousands of buildings to the ground across southeastern Turkey and parts of neighbouring Syria, killing more than 7,700 and wounding thousands.

The death toll is expected to rise even further as search and rescue operations continue.

Almoghraby said aftershocks were still happening as of Tuesday evening.

“You never know when the next earthquake is going to happen,” he said. “Whenever an aftershock happens, people just run out in the streets, they go to their cars because it is really cold.”

Almoghraby, who is the director of international programs at Journalists for Human Rights, was on assignment with a Canadian colleague to train Syrian refugee journalists when the earthquake hit.

Both he and his colleague have been trying to leave Turkey ever since, but have not been able to do so despite efforts by Journalists for Human Rights to get them out safely.

Global Affairs Canada did not respond immediately for comment on Tuesday. It said on Monday it had not yet received any requests for help from Canadians related to the earthquake but noted there were 7,513 registered as being abroad in Turkey and 1,394 in Syria.

Almoghraby said he has taken shelter in a local radio station he worked with as part of Journalists for Human Rights’ program. Others who have been displaced by the earthquake are living in temporary shelters such as mosques, sports stadiums and schools, many of which have reached capacity, he said.

Some buildings near where he is sheltering have collapsed, he said, while others that are still standing have been so badly damaged they are no longer safe to seek refuge in.

Almoghraby said he has witnessed rescue teams digging through the rubble down the street from him.

“The most heartbreaking part is that (around) any building that is collapsed, there are civilians standing close to the rescue teams, and those civilians are the families of the people under the rubbles,” he said.

He said sometimes the people whose loved ones are missing are helping rescue teams, but other times they just sit and observe the scene hopelessly.

“You can tell with time passing by, these civilians just get quieter and quieter…because they know that each hour, the chances (to get their loved ones out alive) are getting slimmer,” he said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday that 13 million of the country’s 85 million people were affected by the quake as he declared a state of emergency in 10 provinces.

In Syria, meanwhile, aid efforts have been hampered by the ongoing war and the isolation of the rebel-held region along the border, which is surrounded by Russia-backed government forces.

The Canadian government said Tuesday it will contribute $10 million to relief efforts in Turkey and Syria as part of an initial aid package.

International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said the federal government was also looking at providing further aid.

“We are conducting the needs assessment to look at what would be the next steps,” Sajjan said, adding that “nothing is off the table.”

In an interview late Tuesday, Defence Minister Anita Anand said the federal government has not ruled out sending a Disaster Assistance Response Team, or DART, to help with the recovery effort.

“I am involved in conversations about what more we can do, and those are ongoing conversations across government. We’re examining all options and Canada is ready to provide assistance,” Anand said.

“All options are being considered. And from a defence perspective, we certainly are looking to (DART) as an option. But I will say that there are a number of possible routes here, and we just want to make sure that what we do provide is useful.”

Breanne England, the head of Middle East North Africa region for the Canadian Red Cross, said thousands of the charitable organization’s staff and volunteers are on the ground in both Syria and Turkey to provide emergency life-saving assistance.

“We’re focused right now on trying to rescue and search who are stuck in the rubble as well as to provide some life-saving assistance to those who are now homeless and, in the streets,” she said.

She said thousands of people remained under the rubble as of Tuesday afternoon and in some cases first responders do not have the proper equipment or machinery to excavate individuals.

“People are literally trying to rescue individuals and family members with their bare hands. It’s incredible,” she said.

England said there is a need for more financial assistance to address a catastrophe of this magnitude.

“When needs are so great and – they’re going to increase – we do absolutely need to respond quickly,” she said.

“The region has not seen an earthquake like this in over a century, and so the humanitarian response needs to be big.”

Providing food, clean water and shelter, and later on psychological support, are among the priorities other than the search and rescue mission.

Turkish Canadians have also stepped in to raise funds and collect donations to send to their country of origin.

Baris Kafadar, the vice-president of the Federation of Canadian Turkish Associations, said the organization has set up a bank account to raise funds, and has set up locations where people can drop off non-monetary donations to be sent abroad.

“What is happening right now is we set up donation centres in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver where people come in, they donate clothing, non-perishable food, toys, safety equipment, sanitary stuff, anything we can basically send back to Turkey,” he said.

“Hopefully we can soon get enough money, find the right place to send the money to,” he said.

—Sharif Hassan, The Canadian Press

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